The main reason local people wanted a theater in Laie is they do not want their kids driving down Kamehameha Highway on a Friday or Saturday night. It is a very dangerous road,” said Don Nielsen, the owner of Laie Palms Cinema.
A few years before he arrived to Hawaii in 2008, Nielsen said multiple high school students were killed in a head on collision while driving back from a movie in Temple Valley. By having a movie theater here in Laie, local community members are provided with a much safer experience compared to driving more than 30 minutes to the next closest theater.
Lauren Judd, a young Laie community member, said, “It definitely is hard to find things to do in Hawaii at night. During the day, it’s great with the beach, hiking and activities, but at night it really dies down. Movies are pretty popular during that time.”
According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Laie Cinemas opened in the Laie Shopping Center dating back to the late 1970s and was owned by multiple corporations. In 2008, that theater shut down, leaving residents upset and worried.
Community members even tried to stop the closing of the theater by picketing around the shopping center while holding signs saying, “Keep our kids off the streets” and “We need our theater.”
Scott Wallace, president of Hollywood Theaters, told the Star-Bulletin that closing Laie Cinemas was purely an economic decision. Wallace said, “Two-screen theaters are economically obsolete. … It’s too bad those protesters didn’t ever show up at the movie theater.”
Nielsen said his background in banking and working for corporations helps him understand why the theater in Laie was closed in 2008.
“I use to work for big corporations, and I know just how much money they extract from the small businesses that they own. The only one I have to pay is me and my few employees. That’s why I did it. I was not worried that it failed before.”
When Nielsen reopened the theatre in July of 2009, he was shocked at the overwhelming support from the community. “I was wondering if it was going to be successful, but the day that we opened, there was a line from the theatre door all the way past Taco Bell.
“People had been waiting there for hours and hours and hours. We opened the door and it was just like pandemonium. They just came rolling in and it was craziness.
“The first person through the door was my patriarch, Patriarch Hanneman. He came up to me, put a lei around my neck, put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘You will be successful.’”
Nielsen said he decided to reopen the theater after moving from California in August 2008 for his wife Alicen to finish school at BYU-Hawaii at age 53. This was shortly after they had sent their youngest son on a mission. Nielsen spent 30 years in the banking industry before retiring and coming to the island.
“When we got here, I had my yellow lab, just he and I,” said Nielsen. “We just goofed off while she went to school.”
After the initial vacation, Nielsen began talking to community members and formed an interest in bringing the theater back to life. After nine months of market research and negotiating, he decided to go for it. In the first six months of opening the theater doors, Nielsen had made back the money on his original investment.
“Some people complain that we are not like the mall. We do not have the big recliner seats or the big menu. My attitude is a little different. I like the family place. When you come to the theater, you’ll probably know 20-30 percent of the people there.
“It’s a good crowd. Local people are great. I get a lot of pressure to be like the big companies, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to that. If people want that, they will go somewhere else.”
The current employees of the theater include the Nielsens, their daughter, and three BYUH college students. Nielsen has no plans on moving away from the small, quaint feel the movie theater has. He still enjoys owning the theater not just because of the movies, but also because of the people.
“I like seeing people in the community and most people are in a good mood when here. They are going to watch a movie and eat popcorn. They bring their kids and they are happy. That is why I do it.”
McKay Orr, a local community member, said, “It doesn’t have the big comfy seats, but I know the people who work there, and it’s fun. It’s cheap, convenient and a really good theater for little Laie.”